I probably learned more about audiences, interacting, and guest psychology as an actor/guide at Titanic, the Exhibition than in any other job. It was a perfect laboratory to find creative solutions to the daily challenges of an entertainer/educator.
Back around 2003, the guides were conducting our one-hour tour in 30 minute chunks. We might have a group with us for the first half, then scamper back to the green room and describe the prior thirty minutes to the actor who’d take over for the finish; or we might stick with the same group (of up to 45 people!) for the full hour.
Many of the cast were talented and passionate storytellers, whose love of Titanic was evident and foremost in their shows. But certain guides could be counted on to check-in backstage with tales of difficult tour groups, claiming the guests were ill-mannered, inattentive or bored. “I don’t know why they’re even here!” was a common complaint. Some of the cast hardly ever complained, but some did it pretty regularly… and to hear them tell it, the fault always lay with the guests’ lousy attitude and apathy.
Years before this, I had learned from Disneyland’s Fulton Burley, “There’s no such thing as a bad audience.” That had been my experience for years, since I was working in theme parks… where we do the same show 5-10 times a day and can therefore polish and perfect a bit of business until it nearly always works.
But things were different at Titanic because we were asking for more from our audience than just their laughter and applause. For an ideal tour we needed this newly-formed group of strangers to be:
Respectful – to their guide, the rest of the group and the subject matter;
Attentive – to the story we are telling; and
Playful – willing to participate personally and creatively.
That’s a lot to expect from any group, but to look for that kind of behavior in a random bunch of strangers visiting from all over the world… that’s asking a lot.
Some actors would demand that the guests listen to them. Some would try to bully them into behaving ‘in the period’, or get angry if they made anachronistic comments. And some treated the guests like children, making them take an oath to believe that they were really back in time.
Naturally these methods only pulled the guest out of the story and alienated them from the guide. I decided that since we couldn’t make the guests behave the way we wanted; I’d find a way to get them to change their behavior on their own.
As I pondered this problem a great truth was revealed to me:
“The guests will seldom be what you want them to be;
They will always be what they are.”
If there was to be a reliable answer to this problem, it would have to deal with that reality.
I started with the one inescapable truth about our audience: They had paid to be here. That had to mean that at some level, to one degree or another, they cared about some aspect of Titanic. That left only one possible culprit, only one thing that could be causing the guests to lose interest: The Guide.
In that light, careful re-examination of my own tour led to the creation of the 5 Steps to Great Themed Entertainment:
1) Don’t Waste My Time – I cut all the introductory, ‘cute’ and character-driven dialogue. In its place, I communicated character by the language I chose to deliver the facts and through my attitude toward the guests.
I made sure that every sentence was either a set-up for a humorous or emotional payoff, or was loaded with facts about the ship and her crew. By starting right in with a concise and precisely-delivered presentation, the guests soon learned that they should quietly listen to what I was saying.
I found that I got the best response if I thought of my spiel like a stand-up comedy routine. Whereas success in comedy comes from delivering 4-5 jokes per minute, if I shared 4-5 facts per minute, the guests’ attention wouldn’t wander and they would stick with me for the entire hour.
2) Deliver What You Promise – I redrew my tour outline to present the basic story to every group, addressing the items and questions that were already on their mind before they had to ask for them. For example, I now covered half the lifeboats issue in the first room, discussing how many there were and why there weren’t enough for everyone on board. At tour’s end, when it really mattered, I covered how the boats were loaded and why they weren’t filled to capacity.
I made sure that everyone could see and hear what I was doing. This meant investing the time in each room to quickly place them where I needed them. By doing this with my character’s attitude it kept the audience moving and entertained, and demonstrated that I was concerned about them and the quality of their experience.
I clearly and repeatedly assured them that I would make time to answer their questions about any aspect of the story that interested them. I gladly answered questions and issues that were ‘out of my timeline’, letting the guests know that any question was welcome.
Finally, for the most common questions, I had prepared answers that were as polished and entertaining as any part of my standard tour. And I never just answered the question I was asked, because there are always guests who will ‘turn off’ while others’ questions are being answered. I made sure that each answer came with a story or attendant facts that would interest everyone else on the tour.
3) Make Me Laugh – There was one guide who really fancied himself a great comedian; and unfortunately, he loved bad puns. When the guests wouldn’t laugh, he’d then point out the joke, as if that would retroactively make it funny. Then he’d come back to the break room and complain that no one was laughing.
For me, the most offensive thing was the amount of time this actor’s bad humor stole from his tour; time he could have used to share true facts and touching stories about the ship. If he had taken the time to consider the group’s faces, he would have seen that they weren’t only not laughing… they knew he was wasting their time. They were annoyed and they looked like it.
To be sure, I had jokes in my tour. It helped bring the group together, to create unity, to communicate the party atmosphere that pervaded the ship before the disaster. And it helped relieve the mood at the end, after telling the story of the tragedy. Some of the jokes worked reliably, some now-and-then.
I cut the jokes that only worked sometimes. And I made that decision based on audible laughter, keeping a joke only if I heard the guests laughing. I made no allowances for my own wishful thinking.
I still ad-libbed as the opportunity presented itself, and if a bit got laughs I’d try it again. But I only kept the stuff that reliably amused the guests. And I made sure everything was delivered quickly and in a way that communicated character and moved the show forward.
4) Surprise Me – There are so many stories about the ship and the sinking that it was easy to come up with unexpected tales, and playing a temperamental Irish shipyard worker gave me lots to play with (i.e., sudden mood shifts and expressions of rough familiarity). I also chose language that might be unfamiliar to American ears, but that was easily understood in context.
Working in theme parks you’re exposed to thousands of people, all seeing and hearing the same content. Knowing how the majority of people have reacted to a particular thing enables a performer to anticipate that response and surprise guests by apparently ‘reading their minds’.
5) Move Me – The show at Titanic had always been touching, but with my newly edited and focused presentation, I found the guests were even more attentive and vulnerable in the final rooms – Collision, Starry Night and The Memorial Wall. I was thus able to step out of my usual position ‘front and center’ and place myself on the periphery of the group, letting my voice and words carry the show. This helped the guests turn their thoughts inward and increased their personal identification with the people on the deck that night.
When I had finished making all the changes, I found that it was far easier to conduct a complete tour, and I had more time to answer questions and present ‘sidebar’ stories to the main plotline. The guests were far more attentive and, as a result, got more out of the tour. And I wasted less energy trying to control the larger groups, because I had learned how to manage them better from the start.
Since then, the 5 Steps have provided me with an excellent tool for discussing, creating and reviewing all forms of interactive entertainment. I hope that you will try applying them to the shows and roles you create… and let us all know how they work for you!